My Century Home Page

Broadcast on Friday 3rd September 1999


My name is Oliver Berlau. And I was in East Berlin on the night of the 9th of November 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell. It was rather weird to live in a divided country. We couldn't go to West Germany. But of course we could watch West German television and listen to West German radio stations. We knew more or less what was going on. In the months before the Wall came down, there were many people who tried to escape to the West who were desperate. And there were demonstrations in some East German cities - especially in Leipzig. Everybody noticed something would have to happen, but nobody expected a complete change. I mean, it was a mistake. They didn't really plan to open the Wall.

On the 9th of November, I was sitting in my flat, watching television, as I had done on the days before. And, all of a sudden, I saw the East Berlin party chief, Gunther Shabowsky, announcing "travel freedom" - which, in my book, meant: "Oh yes, I can go to the police, ask for an exit visa, and perhaps in three or four weeks' time I can go to West Germany to see my uncle and aunt." One of the reporters asked: from when is this valid? And he didn't have the information. And he just said: "As I understand it - from now". It was about ten minutes' walk from my flat to the Berlin Wall. And people were running about. And at first I thought: "Perhaps it is another demonstration". But people were too jubilant, too happy. And then I saw it. And I saw the people. And, after two or three hours, there were two or three or four thousand of them. And there were about twenty border guards there. And people were getting angry. "Don't you watch television? Didn't you see Gunther Shabowsky? He told us we could travel. So let us through!" And this lieutenant - I suppose he was - they had at the checkpoint - he said; "No, I don't want to get killed by four thousand people. I have to let them through. I can't use machine-guns on them." And, once that checkpoint was gone, they had reached the point of no return.

I had never travelled to West Berlin. It was the very first western city I ever saw in my life. And I was really excited. I was greeted by loads of commercials (ie advertisements). And I noticed the lights. There were many, many lights. The first thing I did, I walked into a bookshop. And I bought "1984", by George Orwell. I couldn't get it in East Germany, of course. It was five marks. And, when the shop assistant noticed I was East German, I got it for four marks. An elderly man from West Berlin gave me a big hug, and asked me if I had been waiting, like him, for 28 years for this day to come.

I didn't think, in the beginning, that the end of the Wall would mark the end of East Germany - at least not within a year. I think some people in East Germany were horrified, were afraid. Many people, I think, were insecure. They didn't know what was going to happen. East Germany was a police state, but many people felt secure in it, in a certain way. I must say, I noticed something very strange. I crossed into West Berlin. It was very exciting. It was thrilling. And the moment I crossed back into East Berlin, I felt on safe ground again. And I think that must have happened to many East Germans, not only to me. So the end of the East German state was not necessarily wanted by everybody. I think a majority of the people wanted it - yes. But not everybody. For me personally, the main consequence was simply the possibility to leave the country and travel freely, find a wife from another country - my wife is from Spain. I couldn't have imagined all that before the Wall came down. For me, it was a great opportunity. The then Mayor of West Berlin, Walter Momper, said: "Those who slept during this night, and didn't notice what was going on, will regret it for the rest of their lives".